- The Washington Times - Friday, August 4, 2000

TEHRAN Reformers in Iran's new parliament face their first test of wills against hard-line clerics this weekend, with incoming lawmakers determined to protect press freedom at a time when the government jails reporters who question the nation's theocracy.

Since March, when voters swept hard-line clerics and their allies from power in the Majlis, or legislature, a clampdown has closed 20 pro-reform newspapers and magazines and left dozens of journalists, editors and newspaper owners in prison.

In Iran, Islamic rulers led by Ayatollah Ali Khameini still hold a virtual veto over any actions by parliament.

Still, reform-minded lawmakers plan to challenge that authority when parliament opens Sunday by introducing a bill that would impose modest measures to protect press freedom.

The measure appears to have widespread support in Iran, where hard-line newspapers have become widely scorned and people openly criticize attempts by religious rulers to put a straitjacket on public opinion.

"People are very much upset about the closing of the reform publications," said Mohammed Reza Firouzigan, 19, a newsstand vendor. "These newspapers wrote the truth.

"Our society is like a cage. Suddenly the truth was poured out. People just want to know what is going on, especially if there is a clash among forces."

People refuse to buy hard-line publications that now dominate newsstands. The vendor sold far more cigarettes than newspapers Thursday.

"People don't buy the conservative newspapers which remain. They want to read the realities they were not supposed to read about," he said.

With the reform papers shut down and the cleric-controlled state broadcasting system lacking credibility, many turn for news to Farsi-language foreign broadcasts from the very countries identified by the regime as its enemies: the United States, Britain and Israel.

"Of course, I listen to them," said one man, 37, who declined to give his full name.

"Radio Israel is more reliable than all of them."

The Majlis faces a tough test Sunday because reformist members fear they too may be jailed if they go too far in challenging the hard-liners, said several people who asked that their names not be used.

One Western diplomat noted that, at least for now, "they are only jailing people, whereas they were assassinating them. It's still not pleasant, but it's an improvement."

He referred to the killings of five pro-reform writers and intellectuals that rocked the nation two years earlier.

But fear of jail remains high. Even the brother of reformist President Mohammed Khatami was called to the court recently over his possible involvement in a mysterious videotaped confession of a hard-line hit man, Farshad Ebrahimi.

Mr. Ebrahimi's confession, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Times, said that he and others in a hit squad called Ansar had attacked pro-reform students, intellectuals and officials on orders of former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

Mr. Rafsanjani now heads the Expediency Council, one of two hard-line groups with the power to veto legislation.

Mr. Ebrahimi was jailed, as were the two reformist lawyers who prepared the videotape, which government officials have denounced as a fake.

The legislature is investigating the charges, and the lawyers have been released.

But this week a special court for news publications found guilty Mohammed Reza Yazdan-Panah, the publisher of the reform daily Azad, of violating press restrictions. Another writer, Taqi Rahmani, was freed on bail on charges of insulting top officials.

The government has yet to prosecute the most prominent investigative journalist in Iran, Akbar Gangi, who was jailed after probing the links between security forces and the killers of pro-reform intellectuals two years ago.

What reformers want to do Sunday is roll back three changes to the press law passed in March by the outgoing hard-line Majlis. They want:

• To bar the hard-line judiciary from demanding lists of newspaper staff members in order to prevent closed newspapers from reopening under a different name.

• To remove from the judiciary the authority to shut newspapers arbitrarily, without a hearing and court order.

• To oust hard-liners from the press jury and force the press judge to obey its rulings.

If the pro-reform majority of the Majlis passes these relatively modest amendments to the press law, approval will still be required from the hard-liner-dominated Guardian Council and the Expediency Council.

"If the press changes take place," said the diplomat, "a number of journalists know they will have to take things slower. There has been a reality check."

But the battle continues on a number of fronts.

Just last week, the hard-line newspaper Kayan published a list of pro-reform leaders and intellectuals it said received money from foreign groups such as Human Rights Watch, which it portrayed as a tool of the United States.

In reaction, the pro-reform Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) blasted Kayan for spreading accusations about the intellectuals slain two years ago, saying that the hard-line paper had encouraged the killers.

"IRNA stood up and said 'you can't do this thing.' It was the first time anyone took them on," said the diplomat. Since then Kayan has lost popularity.

The battle for freedom of the press is considered vital to ending two decades of social repression, but it is only a prelude to further battles over control of the government and economy.

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